Sappho's Bittersweet Songs:
Configurations of Female and Male in Ancient Greek Lyric
Lyn Hatherly Wilson
London and New York: Routledge, 1996. 232 pp.
Reviewed by: Ruth Scodel,
Department of Classical Studies,
University of Michigan,
Poor Sappho! She is so often in the position of the one 'different' member of the group - the African-American, the Asian, the Jew - whose responses can never be taken as her own, but always as representative of a limited and limiting identity. Sappho is The Woman. We cannot help interrogating her this way; she is the only one we can ask. This book , according to its blurb, applies 'late twentieth-century theories of feminism, psychoanalysis, and literary criticism for the first time', and it seeks to analyze sexual difference by comparing Sappho's poetry to that of male lyric poets. It was inevitable that someone would attempt this project. The book is in many places an elegant, sensitive appreciation; there are many good passages, but I do not think the book is successful because the project is impossible. This review will concentrate on why I do not think it succeeds; that is not because I think it is a bad piece of work, but because the reasons I do not think it succeeds teach us something in a way that its best aspects do not.
The author, herself a poet, looks to Sappho for more than Sappho can provide. Women poets and lesbians can hardly avoid romanticizing and idealizing Sappho; she is not just the representative Woman, she is our originary myth. Sappho does not seems to worry about how she can be a woman and a poet. Nothing in her surviving corpus indicates that she had to struggle to achieve her voice or that her poetic role was socially exceptional. On the contrary, she seems completely at ease with her own poetic authority.
Certainly in some of her most famous works, such as the Priamel Poem, she defines her erotic values and the poetry that celebrates them against other values and other poetic genres, particularly epic. While Archilochus may similarly define his poetry in opposition to epic, Sappho's position has a special resonance, because it echoes the way epic (and presumably the wider culture) assigns gender roles: war, Homer says, is a concern for men, not women; so when Sappho claims that sights of war are less beautiful that the object of a person's erotic longing, she calls on gendered categories. Still, gender is not the only category at work. Perhaps if the remains were less fragmentary, it would be easier to identify what is gendered in Sappho's song - but perhaps not.
The fragmentary corpus certainly creates special dangers; only a very skilled and courageous philologist can maneuver both safely and confidently. This book is too dependent on earlier scholarship, and sometimes wavers. The author is clearly impressed by Holt Parker's argument against faith in the biographical tradition, in which Sappho has an institutionalized role as leader of her circle of women. At the same time, she is clearly much influenced by Claude Calame and other critics who connect Sappho's poems with rituals of initiation and maturation. The argument is sometimes fuzzy as a result. So she says of fr. 58 that Sappho mentions the physical signs of old age, 'but the effect is represented differently, apparently nullified by delicacy , love, and the brightness and beauty of the sun' (p. 140). She does not mention the apparent reference to Tithonus, or that nobody really knows what the final lines mean. Except where it is completely clear that Sappho is not the speaker she tends to assume that she is.
One serious difficulty is the definition of genre. The book compares Sappho to 'male lyric poetry', but this is not a useful generic boundary, by any plausible definition, whether emic or etic, except for the makers of anthologies: a convention of modern scholarly organization. We do not really understand archaic Greek generic boundaries, but they were certainly extremely important in determining how people heard poetry. Iambic, though, is clearly different from melic poetry, and elegy is again distinct: these forms have their meters and diction, and there are some distinctions of subject-matter. Archaic Greeks probably has different expectations for poems composed for public performance, with dancing, and poems for performance at symposia or informal gatherings. The proper sphere of comparison for Sappho, in other words, is either narrower than it is here - for her work other than the epithalamia, other poetry apparently intended for sung performance among groups of friends‹or broader, archaic Greek discourse in general. This is not a trivial concern. Wilson rightly points out that didactic, gnomic statements are rare in the surviving fragments of Sappho. Are they common in other 'private' melic poetry? Are they common in erotic contexts? Here is seems appropriate to focus the question narrowly. Again, to contrast the treatment of female desire in a Sapphic epithalamium and in Archilochus' iambic neatly in gender terms oversimplifies.
This tendency to look at complex values in neat gender terms causes weakness especially in the chapters on 'Honour' and 'Virginity'. The latter chapter discusses particularly 44a, on Artemis, and it is very hard to know how a Greek (male or female) 'mapped' a goddess in the human world. The chapter also, although Sissa appears in the bibliography, tends to take a universalizing view of what virginity is. 'Honour' is a complicated concept too. If Sappho in fr. 5 asks that her brother be willing to make his sister 'a sharer in his honor', it is surely odd that by criticizing him publicly she probably lowers his status and gives herself less to share. Or is the speaker here, as so often, directing irony at herself?
A recurring theme in this book is Sappho's lack of 'logocentricity', the failure of her poems to proceed logically. There are not enough passages of lyric close enough to Sappho's to decide how logical erotic lyric was expected to be. On the other hand, both Hesiod and Pindar are famous for the difficulty of their transitions, and archaic poetry is general often regarded as 'illogical'. When she points out that the surviving fragments do not show much anxiety about aging or fear of death, in contrast, the contrast with both Mimnermus' elegy and Anacreon's song seems appropriate.
For Wilson, Sapphic love is characterized by reciprocity. She cites with approval A. P. Burnett's claim that within the Sapphic world to refuse love is unjust. Yet this argument rests entirely on one line in Fr. 1. That line, if the text is correct, refers not to accepting love, but to leaving an existing relationship: Aphrodite asks whom she is to bring back to Sappho's friendship, and who is behaving unjustly to her. Yet the entire passage comes to us only in Sappho's voice: Aphrodite is a projection of the speaker. We do not know how the object of Sappho's desire would describe the situation, and Sappho-as-poet may want her audience to be aware of the limited view of Sappho-as-speaker. The speaker of this poem has used her intimacy with a god, apparently, to coerce another person to love her, 'even unwillingly', in language reminiscent of magic; and the poem is an implicit threat to do this again. That is not what I consider reciprocity. Yet I, too, respond to the poem from Sappho's point of view, excusing her because she, after all, is revealing this coercive side.
Sappho is seductive, and we cannot help but be seduced. For the reader as poet, the seduction is empowering and useful. For everyone, it is sometimes delightful, as when Wilson invites us into the Sapphic world of garlands, incense, and moonlight (in preference to sunlight). For the historicizing scholar, resistance may be as important a tool as philology.
COPYRIGHT NOTE: Copyright remains with authors, but due reference should be made to this journal if any part of the above is later published elsewhere.
Electronic Antiquity Vol. 4 Issue 2 - April 1998 edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington antiquity-editor@classics.Server.edu.au ISSN 1320-3606
by Kaavya Giridhar